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Havana City Trip - Habana Vieja

Local color abounds



Today you'll spend the day exploring Habana Vieja. Begin at Parque Central and follow Calle Obispo east through Habana Vieja, which is full of shops. Pick up a hand-stitched guayabera or lace blouse at El Quitrín. En route, stop at the Museo Numismático and, nearby, the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls. His room (508) is enshrined as a mini-museum. From the rooftop, you can take in a 360-degree view of the colonial quarter. An old-fashioned elevator will trundle you to the top. A stone's throw south is the enchanting Museo y Farmacia Taquechel, a nineteenth-century pharmacy that's stocked with apothecary jars and looks as if time has stood still.

Arriving in cobbled Plaza de Armas, the main square during colonial days, turn into the Palacio de los Capitanes-Generales, the old governor's palace. Today it houses the Museo de la Ciudad, the City Museum, displaying colonial treasures in its sumptuous salons. Other key sites you'll want to photograph include the Hotel Santa Isabel, in a beautiful palace on the plaza's east side; and the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, the city's oldest fortress, on its northeast corner.

Calle Neptuno
Calle Neptuno

Now follow Calle Tacón north one block and turn left for Plaza de la Catedral. This is the most intimate of Havana's plazas, being enclosed by gracious eighteenth-century mansions and the magnificent baroque Catedral San Cristóbal de la Habana. Before moving on, check out the plaza's Museum de Arte Colonial.

Just 50 yards west, on Calle Empedrado, is La Bodeguita del Medio, the most famous of the Hemingway hangouts. It's always crowded, but the mojitos will take the edge off the sultry Cuban heat. At this point you've earned lunch, and there's no better place to sample traditional Cuban criolla cuisine than here.

Replenished, retrace your steps to Plaza de Armas and follow Calle Oficios, lined with exquisite colonial buildings. (An alternative lunch spot is Al Medina Restaurante Arabe, with an Arab-inspired menu; or Hostal Valencia — a Spanish-style posada with a gorgeous courtyard and scrumptious paellajust down the street.) Calle Oficios opens onto Plaza San Francisco, dominated by the Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco de Asís. This baroque church and convent, completed in 1730, today puts on classical concerts and is chock-full of religious icons in the Museo de Arte Religioso.

Turning onto Calle Brasil, you arrive at Plaza Vieja, the largest and most beautiful of Old Havana's four original colonial plazas. Its many gems include the Museo de Naipes — the Museum of Playing Cardsand Taberna La Muralla, serving delicious lager-style beers brewed on-site; plus the recently opened Planetarium, showing screenings of the heavens.

After quaffing a refreshing beer at La Muralla, head two blocks east to the Museo de Ron (Museum of Rum) for a 30-minute tour. You'll see a very intricate, to-scale rum factory train set that winds through a model sugar cane plantation. At the end of the tour, visitors are invited to sample rum at the bar.

Now turn south and follow the harbor front boulevard three blocks to the Fería de Artesanía , the city's main artisan market and a shopping must (closed on Mondays). It has stall after stall manned by Cuban artists selling folk art to sophisticated needlework linens. Bargaining is part of the process. Pick up a hand-woven reed basket to carry all those purchases.

Continue to Day 3


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